August in the UK is the silly season (well, not so much this year – this year, things are looking rather serious – but traditionally). It’s when everyone goes on holiday and the definition of “news” gets stretched but, even by those standards, among the silliest, as well as the strangest, events of this summer is the elevation of Pippa Middleton to style icon status. Every month I think it will go away – and every month I discover I am wrong.
Pippa was the cover star for August’s Tatler, for example, while a survey of 2,000 British women between the ages of 18 and 44 conducted by Really TV found that Pippa’s self-tan colour, known as “royal mocha”, is now the most desired self-tan shade in the UK. Apparently, Pippa (and Philippa) are now among the most popular baby names in the country. Meanwhile, the “Pippa Middleton Ass Appreciation Society” page on Facebook has been “liked” more than 239,170 times, and counting, and her bottom beat Jennifer Lopez’s for the (dubious) honour of most requested bottom shape, or so plastic surgeon Constantino Mendieta announced on Fox News.
And that’s not all. The red Hobbs dress Pippa wore to Wimbledon sold out within three days and, after she was photographed carrying a Bristol handbag by Modalu, boosting sales, the company renamed it – yes – the “Pippa”.
All this, however, was topped in the celebrity sweepstakes this week by the airing of an hour-long documentary on US television channel TLC (maker of such docu-gems as Born without a Face and Charlie Sheen: On the Brink) devoted to all things Pippa. Called, imaginatively, Crazy About Pippa, it uncovers speculation that she wore padded Spanx (the body-sculpting underwear) under her maid-of-honour dress.
In other words, her fame has crossed the ocean. Which makes the public fascination with the younger sister of the Duchess of Cambridge no longer simply something that can be dismissed as silly but a pop culture signifier of some sort.
After all, it’s one thing for the English to get excited about a new socialite – and one who shops on the high street. But the Americans? Yes, they have a romantic thing about the British royal family but it is usually limited to the main attractions, like the toothsome twosome who swung through California last month.
Why is everyone so excited about a girl who hasn’t really done anything except look nice and behave well? The normal causes of elevation to icon status simply don’t apply here. Pippa has not, for example, made movies, like style icons such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. She has not made a reality show about herself, like Sarah Ferguson. She is not a model, like Kate Moss. She didn’t marry the prince, like her sister. She isn’t a superstar athlete like the Williams sisters, nor an award-wining singer like Rihanna or Lady Gaga. She has not attempted to use her notoriety to advance social change or conduct any sort of consciousness-raising.
Rather, as far as I can tell, Ms Middleton is a girl who went to good schools, did well (but not extraordinarily), loves her family (but has her own life), works hard (but not too hard), and takes grooming seriously (but not too seriously). In other words, she’s a lot like a lot of other girls, except for that sister-who-married-the-prince thing. But the latter is Catherine’s fairy tale, not Pippa’s. And normally, in the fairy tale, the sisters, even when they are not evil hags, sort of fade away. They don’t get fan clubs for their bottoms.
Now, understand, I am not trying to denigrate Pippa or her achievements in any way. I’m just trying to figure out what she represents – what she says about us, at this point in time. Because we are the ones that have put her on that pedestal. It’s an unpredicted ripple effect of her appearance at a very special wedding, in a very well-made dress. She didn’t ask for it, though she also seems to be enjoying it. Which may be the point.
For more than anything, I think, Pippa’s very blankness provides a reflection of our own thoughts and desires. We can write her story any way we want. Or more pertinently, just as we would want if it was happening to us.
The Pippa phenomenon represents a new stage in the voyeurism spectrum. Instead of reality TV, (which you watch to think, “Thank God I’m not that desperate”) or celebrity reality, which is more like unreality (yes, Gwyneth looks good but who has the time for those workouts?), it’s slightly heightened reality reality. To see Pippa is to think: “Hey, if I was just a bit thinner/taller/browner/younger, I could buy that dress/get that tan/have that job.”
In other words, she isn’t really a style icon – she’s a style stand-in. La Middleton, c’est nous.
More columns at www.ft.com/friedman